TESMAN And fancy—I'm delighted to hear that he is quite a reformed character. (1.435)
That’s what you think. Is there such thing as "reform" in Hedda Gabler?
BRACK Why bless me—cold punch is surely not poison. LØVBORG Perhaps not for everyone. (2.281-2)
This is the first line that clearly indicates alcoholism as Eilert’s big issue, and even this is implicit in its claim. Looks like another case of Victorian values is at play here. Did you notice that we never even hear the word "alcohol"?
HEDDA Do think it quite incomprehensible that a young girl—when it can be done—without any one knowing— […] HEDDA —should be glad to have a peep, now and then, into a world which—? […] HEDDA —which she is forbidden to know anything about? (2.348-52)
Eilert’s drinking renders him both more dangerous to Hedda and more interesting (which is why she threatened to shoot him and why she refers to herself as a coward for breaking it off her relationship with him).
HEDDA I saw it plainly in Judge Brack's face a moment ago. LØVBORG What did you see? HEDDA His contemptuous smile, when you dared not go with them into the inner room. (2.417-9)
Hedda must know that this sort of taunting isn’t going to do the trick; after all, what she likes about Eilert is that he doesn’t care what other people think. It seems likely that this is just her set-up, a lead-in for her to talk about Mrs. Elvsted’s earlier panic.
LØVBORG So she was in mortal terror! On my account! […] LØVBORG [Looks fixedly at her for a moment. His face is distorted.] So that was my comrade's frank confidence in me? […] LØVBORG [Takes one of the glasses of punch, raises it to his lips, and says in a low, husky voice.] Your health, Thea! [He empties the glass, puts it down, and takes the second.] (2.436-8)
Look at what actually causes Eilert’s relapse: a lack of trust and a break in what he thought was a perfect companionship with Mrs. Elvsted. This is similar to Hedda’s later disillusionment, when she concludes that she doesn’t believe in vine leaves anymore.
LØVBORG [Calmly, putting down the glass.] It was stupid of me all this. Thea—to take it in this way, I mean. Don't be angry with me, my dear, dear comrade. You shall see—both you and the others—that if I was fallen once—now I have risen again! Thanks to you, Thea. (2.455)
We’re not so sure Eilert means what Thea thinks he means. He says he has fallen and now rises again – but which phase was his "fall"? Thea thinks he’s talking about the two drinks he’s just downed in Hedda’s parlor, but it’s distinctly possible that Eilert is referring to his own brief reformation at the hand of Mrs. Elvsted. This would confirm one theory: that Eilert resents being reformed and feels this new lifestyle is inconsistent with his character.
TESMAN And then how pitiful to think that he—with all his gifts—should be irreclaimable, after all. (3.79)
It’s interesting that what makes Eilert so appealing to Hedda is appalling to George.
HEDDA I suppose you mean that he has more courage than the rest? TESMAN No, not at all—I mean that he is incapable of taking his pleasure in moderation. (3.80-1)
One man’s alcoholic is another’s brave hero; drinking means courage to Hedda because it represents a defiance of social expectations.
LØVBORG It will not end with last night—I know that perfectly well. And the thing is that now I have no taste for that sort of life either. I won't begin it anew. She has broken my courage and my power of braving life out. (3.293)
Eilert, like Hedda, seems to think that his drinking is a sign of courage,not a problem to be overcome. Yet he’s incapable of going back to what seems to be his preferred lifestyle. Why?